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Senate Democrats to Huddle Privately on Iraq

Senate Democrats will meet privately Wednesday to discuss the current situation in Iraq, as some Democrats are now openly questioning why Congress has not been more forceful in pressing the Bush administration for an exit strategy.

“It has not been getting the attention it deserves from the president or the majority party and not even from us,” said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). “But we need to show some leadership here.”

Feingold offered a resolution last week that called on President Bush to offer a timeline for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq. Feingold argued that the time frame should be based on the “establishment of a competent Iraqi force” and predicted the removal of American troops would help U.S. relations with the Arab world. The Senate has not acted on the resolution, which was directed to the Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) noted that Senators are not even debating the Iraq occupation on the floor, which he said “is incredible,” given that “this thing is imploding.”

Dodd charged that the Senate has been tied up on matters that should not be considered immediate concerns, like the debate over Bush’s judicial nominees and discussions about overhauling the Social Security system. He suggested there might be a move to offer an amendment to a bill being considered on the Senate floor directly related to Iraq, in an effort to spark a debate on the issue.

“The point is, we would offer something to provoke Members to start coming over to talk about this thing because we are not talking about it,” Dodd said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the meeting is not designed to draft an alternative plan to bring the troops back home and acknowledged it is unlikely the caucus will even reach a unified position on the matter.

Instead, the Minority Leader described the Democratic discussion as an opportunity for Senators to freely offer their opinions.

“We want to make sure that everyone understands that we are going to do everything within our legislative power to support the men and women who are fighting for us in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Reid said. “But there won’t be any final conclusion.”

Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) echoed Dodd’s assertion that Congress has given scant attention to Iraq and said it is imperative for the party to take a lead role on the issue.

“We really feel the committees on Capitol Hill have not done their duty and not met their responsibility to monitor our progress in Iraq and hold this administration accountable,” Durbin said. “I think the national sentiment is really questioning our policy there and whether this administration has a clear strategy to succeed and bring our troops home. The continued loss of American lives is just devastating, not only to the families but our country.”

Still, Democrats appear to be a divided over how best to proceed.

“Look, the fact is there are a lot of different opinions in the Caucus on Iraq and people in the country have very different opinions both about going in and the aftermath,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) “Clearly, virtually everyone acknowledges that the planning for the aftermath is deficient. But with that said the question is now, what do we do going forward?”

Meanwhile, House Democrats received some candid advice Tuesday from a former senior military official to stay clear of calling for a date-certain withdrawal from Iraq.

Retired General Anthony Zinni, formerly commander-in-chief of the United States Central Command under then-President Bill Clinton, told House Democrats at a private luncheon to exercise caution when calling on the White House to bring U.S. forces home. He advised them to call for benchmarks to end the conflict, but to steer clear of setting a date.

“He’s not a political guy, his points were substantive,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “He said ‘you can’t set a date for withdrawal.’”

This source said Zinni stressed that his views come from a military perspective, and as such, believes a date specific is a losing proposition for the country. By pledging to exit at a certain time, the country may have to break its word and remain in the region, or withdraw troops and fail to meet objectives and complete reconstruction.

“He was very clear that there shouldn’t be a timetable,” said another senior Democratic aide. “That’s a trap.”

Zinni’s counsel comes just as a group of House Democrats inch toward setting dates for bringing the troops home. They have launched a major offensive against the Bush administration to come up with a specific strategy to end the war. About 50 liberal Members formed the “Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus” last week to pressure the GOP to come up with a plan.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has stopped short of calling for a withdrawal date herself, but rather tried to rally the Caucus around a message of calling for a “success strategy” for Iraq.

Zinni, who received a standing ovation from about 100 Members in the room, has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration for mishandling the conflict. On Tuesday, he repeated his concerns about the White House’s policies, and said while politically impractical, more troops should be deployed in Iraq to secure the region.

He also said that Iraq needs free and fair elections, a strong Constitution and that the U.S. government needs to try to reverse the anger and resentment felt by the people in Iraq. Zinni also said that all the momentum the U.S. had for coming to a peaceful end to the war has been lost.

“He was about as harsh in his description of their implementation as you can be,” said a source in the room.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, invited Zinni to address the Caucus. He said he wanted him to “explain the price” of getting out of Iraq prematurely, and without a plan to build the country, its constitution and its government.

Murtha added that Zinni laid out the reality of the situation in “expert terms,” which Members needed to hear.

“He said it’s not good to have a time set,” Murtha said. “It would discourage our commanders and there’s no way you can win that way.”

But Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who has been leading Democrats efforts to bring the troops home, said she doesn’t agree with Zinni’s premise that — despite the Administration’s major mishandling of the war — that the U.S. should continue a long-term presence there.

“It’s been badly run, poorly planned and our troops are dying because of it,” she said.

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